Friends, you might have heard that the orca known as Tokitae, or Lolita, imprisoned at Miami Seaquarium for the past 53 years, passed last Friday. The name the Lummi nation gave her is Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut and she was believed to be 57 years old. She lived in a tank measuring 80ft by 35ft, often in isolation and in water quality that had been repeatedly reported as unsanitary. Like the other captive orcas/cetaceans around the world, she was treated as a cash cow, made to perform for fee-paying audiences. She lived a life of violence and abuse, in the name of ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’. It is said that renal failure caused her death, thought her health has been poor for a while. A plan had been beginning to be made to facilitate her release to an ocean-pen near her home waters, but she will never see this.
When she passed, a rare ‘superpod’ from J, K and L clans of the Southern Resident orcas gathered west of San Juan Island. I join those who believe Tokitae’s community of these beautiful and super-natural beings gathered to take her spirit back home.
I met one of the men involved in Tokitae’s capture last week. It was the famous Penn Cove massacre in 1970, where 50+ Southern Resident whales were captured violently and dozens died. It was an event that the critically endangered Southern Residents never really recovered from, as a whole generation was stolen from their families. I happened to be staying in the same place as this man. He now helps to manage release programmes for captive cetaceans and that’s all I knew about him before I met him. My heart hit the floor when I heard he was on a boat in 1970, part of the Penn Cove team. I heard from him that he was young, how he loved whales, how he saw grown men cry, how he felt they did their best to prevent the deaths in the capture. I learnt about his years working for Seaworld and then about the work he does now to help free captive cetaceans. He seemed to be trying to be honest. Numbness, rage, disbelief, compassion, fear, hatred, love all crashed around each other in my heart, like rocks in a washing machine. I was grateful for my years of meditation and facilitation and being able to breathe and stay in a conversation that felt authentic and true to this complexity.
I’ve been spending time over the last fortnight at Double Bay Sanctuary, where the team hopes to bring Corky, a Northern resident orca held captive by Seaworld in San Diego, back to her home waters to live her remaining years in a big ocean enclosure. I’ve been feeling the beauty of that dream while sitting, grieving and feeling what I feel about Tokitae.
I’ve been thinking about the other orcas still imprisoned around the world, currently believed to stand at 54 individuals. Can I feel what it would be like to have 54 of my human family and friends imprisoned and abused? And over 3000 dolphins. The laws have been changing in some countries around capture and breeding of cetaceans. Campaigning in China has been around new facilities to breed captive orcas (breed means invasive rape and artificial insemination procedures). It’s worth looking at China Cetacean Alliance’s website https://www.chinacetaceanalliance.org/
I’ve been thinking about the many researchers pouring energy into understanding and documenting orcas around the world since, so that such an event can never happen again. Pioneer researcher Mike Bigg developed the photo identification method in this area, so orcas can be individually identified just from a photograph- they don’t need to be touched or harassed at all. This is now used worldwide.
Whilst dozens of orcas have been captured in Icelandic waters, I’ve been grateful to spend time with them and see them thrive over the last 7 years. I know from working with my friend and researcher Marie at Orca Guardians Iceland just how many thousands of hours go into photographing, painstakingly sorting through images, recording details, sharing information about more than a thousand identified orcas there. This work blasts through the anonymity of these societies and hopefully will go a long way to protecting them. Here in BC I’ve met folks from Bay Cetology and OrcaLab who have been doing similar work over the last decades. Alexandra Morton Gwayum’dzi‘s writings and campaigning and learning about the sacred honouring of the orcas by First Nations communities here brought me here in the first place. I’m full of gratitude for these people and this labour of love.
And then… last Monday evening… Last Monday evening I was invited out on a boat with some amazing orca experts and we saw some of Corky’s family members, including her really quite massive brother Fife (A60). Fife looked well and he was darting around in different directions as the evening sun grew more and more orange (we have some wildfire haze here). His family mainly drifted along the surface in a resting line, taking occasional shallow dives. My heart grew huge and still, as it always does around orcas. There is a gentle ache these days, it speaks a language I can’t find words for. I would love to see the day where this family can hear their Corky’s calls in these waters again.
Here is a pebble (painted by Tammy Sheldon) and the sunset recently over the spot where Corky’s new home will be built.
Journey well, Tokitae. You are loved. Rest and be free.